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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. Headshot

Viral Hoax Garners Thousands in Sympathy Funds Online

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It turns out that a Jackson, Mississippi KFC did not, in fact, kick out a disfigured 3-year-old for disturbing other customers with her injuries. Earlier this month, the grandmother, Kelly Mullins, posted that accusation on Facebook. She said she and her granddaughter stopped by a KFC for sweet tea and mashed potatoes on their way home from the hospital and were asked to leave by an employee.

The story got picked up by local media and, as often happens nowadays, went viral. People were outraged. A gofundme.com website was set up and brought in $135,000 in donations. A Las Vegas plastic surgeon offered his services at no charge. KFC promised to donate $30,000 toward the child's medical care, no matter how their investigation turned out. As it turned out, two separate investigations by KFC failed to corroborate Kelly Mullins's story. Store surveillance footage and register receipts didn't produce any evidence of the incident. It just didn't happen.

On the surface, the story was a compelling mix of sympathy and outrage. Who could fail to feel sympathy for this precious little girl, who was viciously attacked by pit bulls? Who could fail to feel outrage at such callous actions by a nameless fast-food worker? I hate to admit it but, when I first read the story, I didn't even consider the possibility it might not be true. After all, I could see the heartbreaking pictures of little Victoria Wilcher, with her mauled face and patch over her right eye. Victoria was real; she had a face, while KFC is a faceless (except for the Colonel), big corporation, with thousands of employees, one of whom could easily have been a jerk.

I believed the story because there was just the right amount of truth to cloud my thinking. But what do we all swear to, if we happen to find ourselves giving testimony in a courtroom? We swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth -- at least, that's how I remember it from TV. Kelly Mullins, Victoria's grandmother, apparently told enough of the truth to get the ball rolling, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, but certainly not the whole truth and with a great deal more than the truth mixed in. I believed it and so did others.

KFC, to its credit, or to the credit of its PR people, are sticking with their $30,000 pledge to help Victoria. Gofundme.com has suspended the donation campaign and offered refunds. I'm not sure what the Las Vegas surgeon will do, though, I suspect, he'll still offer his services pro bono. Part of me is angry at the family for lying to, what turned out to be, a global audience via the Internet, insisting the story was true, right up to when it was proved to be a hoax. Part of me -- a bigger part of me -- continues to have sympathy for the 3-year-old. Someone, who really needs help, is getting help, which is good. The lousy part is that help comes filtered through lies and deception.

I don't really know the motives of the grandmother for making up the lies in the first place, or the family for sticking with those lies until it blew up in their faces. Maybe they were just desperate and maybe they were just hoping money. The person who doesn't really have a motive in any of this is Victoria. She's just a 3-year-old recovering from a horrific injury. In the aftermath of this story, I hope that's who people focus on. Our outrage may have been deliberately misdirected and misplaced but our sympathy was well-placed.

Even though I know I can't believe everything I read or see on the Internet, sometimes I still do; shame on me. There are people who use lies and deception with unclear motives on the Internet; shame on them. Next time, I'll be more careful.